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    MIT to launch new Office of Research Computing and Data

    As the computing and data needs of MIT’s research community continue to grow — both in their quantity and complexity — the Institute is launching a new effort to ensure that researchers have access to the advanced computing resources and data management services they need to do their best work. 

    At the core of this effort is the creation of the new Office of Research Computing and Data (ORCD), to be led by Professor Peter Fisher, who will step down as head of the Department of Physics to serve as the office’s inaugural director. The office, which formally opens in September, will build on and replace the MIT Research Computing Project, an initiative supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research, which contributed in recent years to improving the computing resources available to MIT researchers.

    “Almost every scientific field makes use of research computing to carry out our mission at MIT — and computing needs vary between different research groups. In my world, high-energy physics experiments need large amounts of storage and many identical general-purpose CPUs, while astrophysical theorists simulating the formation of galaxy clusters need relatively little storage, but many CPUs with high-speed connections between them,” says Fisher, the Thomas A. Frank (1977) Professor of Physics, who will take up the mantle of ORCD director on Sept. 1.

    “I envision ORCD to be, at a minimum, a centralized system with a spectrum of different capabilities to allow our MIT researchers to start their projects and understand the computational resources needed to execute them,” Fisher adds.

    The Office of Research Computing and Data will provide services spanning hardware, software, and cloud solutions, including data storage and retrieval, and offer advice, training, documentation, and data curation for MIT’s research community. It will also work to develop innovative solutions that address emerging or highly specialized needs, and it will advance strategic collaborations with industry.

    The exceptional performance of MIT’s endowment last year has provided a unique opportunity for MIT to distribute endowment funds to accelerate progress on an array of Institute priorities in fiscal year 2023, beginning July 1, 2022. On the basis of community input and visiting committee feedback, MIT’s leadership identified research computing as one such priority, enabling the expanded effort that the Institute commenced today. Future operation of ORCD will incorporate a cost-recovery model.

    In his new role, Fisher will report to Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, and coordinate closely with MIT Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), MIT Libraries, and the deans of the five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, among others. He will also work closely with Provost Cindy Barnhart.

    “I am thrilled that Peter has agreed to take on this important role,” says Zuber. “Under his leadership, I am confident that we’ll be able to build on the important progress of recent years to deliver to MIT researchers best-in-class infrastructure, services, and expertise so they can maximize the performance of their research.”

    MIT’s research computing capabilities have grown significantly in recent years. Ten years ago, the Institute joined with a number of other Massachusetts universities to establish the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke to provide the high-performance, low-carbon computing power necessary to carry out cutting-edge research while reducing its environmental impact. MIT’s capacity at the MGHPCC is now almost fully utilized, however, and an expansion is underway.

    The need for more advanced computing capacity is not the only issue to be addressed. Over the last decade, there have been considerable advances in cloud computing, which is increasingly used in research computing, requiring the Institute to take a new look at how it works with cloud services providers and then allocates cloud resources to departments, labs, and centers. And MIT’s longstanding model for research computing — which has been mostly decentralized — can lead to inefficiencies and inequities among departments, even as it offers flexibility.

    The Institute has been carefully assessing how to address these issues for several years, including in connection with the establishment of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. In August 2019, a college task force on computing infrastructure found a “campus-wide preference for an overarching organizational model of computing infrastructure that transcends a college or school and most logically falls under senior leadership.” The task force’s report also addressed the need for a better balance between centralized and decentralized research computing resources.

    “The needs for computing infrastructure and support vary considerably across disciplines,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “With the new Office of Research Computing and Data, the Institute is seizing the opportunity to transform its approach to supporting research computing and data, including not only hardware and cloud computing but also expertise. This move is a critical step forward in supporting MIT’s research and scholarship.”

    Over time, ORCD (pronounced “orchid”) aims to recruit a staff of professionals, including data scientists and engineers and system and hardware administrators, who will enhance, support, and maintain MIT’s research computing infrastructure, and ensure that all researchers on campus have access to a minimum level of advanced computing and data management.

    The new research computing and data effort is part of a broader push to modernize MIT’s information technology infrastructure and systems. “We are at an inflection point, where we have a significant opportunity to invest in core needs, replace or upgrade aging systems, and respond fully to the changing needs of our faculty, students, and staff,” says Mark Silis, MIT’s vice president for information systems and technology. “We are thrilled to have a new partner in the Office of Research Computing and Data as we embark on this important work.” More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Devavrat Shah appointed faculty director of the Deshpande Center

    Devavrat Shah, the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, has been named faculty director of the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovations. The new role took effect on Feb. 1.

    Shah replaces Tim Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, who has held the position of faculty director since 2014. Working alongside Executive Director to the Deshpande Center Leon Sandler, Swager helped the Deshpande Center build an inclusive environment where innovation and entrepreneurship could thrive. By examining new models for directing, seeding, and fostering the commercialization of inventions and technology, Swager helped students and faculty breathe life into research, propelling it out of the lab and into the world as successful ventures.

    The MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovations is an interdepartmental center working to empower MIT’s most talented students and faculty by helping them bring new innovative technologies from the lab to the marketplace in the form of breakthrough products and new companies. Desh Deshpande founded the center with his wife, in 2002.

    “Professor Shah’s deep entrepreneurial experience coupled with his research on large complex networks will be tremendous assets to the center,” says Deshpande. “Devavrat is an impactful educator and inspiring mentor who will play a key role in the center’s mission to foster innovation and accelerate the impact of new discoveries.”

    Shah joined the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 2005. With research focusing on statistical inference and stochastic networks, his research contributions span a variety of areas including resource allocation in communications networks, inference and learning on graphical models, algorithms for social data processing including ranking, recommendations and crowdsourcing, and more recently, causal inference using observational and experimental data.  

    While Shah’s work spans a range of areas across electrical engineering, computer science, and operations research, they are all tied together with the singular focus on developing algorithmic solutions for practical, challenging problems. He’s also authored two books, one on gossip algorithms in 2006 and the other on prediction methods of nearest neighbors in 2018. 

    A highly regarded teacher, Shah has been very active in curriculum development — most notably class 6.438 (Algorithms for Inference) and class 6.401 (Introduction to Statistical Data Analysis) — and has taken a leading role in developing educational programs in the statistics and data science at MIT as part of the Statistics and Data Science Center within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

    “With his experience and contributions as a researcher, educator, and innovator, I have no doubt that Devavrat will excel as the next faculty director of the Deshpande Center and help usher in the next era of innovation for MIT,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I am grateful to Tim for the tremendous work he has done during his eight years as faculty director of the Deshpande Center. His commitment to building an inclusive environment for innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive was particularly impressive.” 

    A practiced entrepreneur, Shah co-founded Celect, Inc. — now part of Nike — in 2013, to help retailers accurately predict demand using omnichannel data. In 2019, he helped start IkigaiLabs, where he serves as CTO, with the mission to build self-driving organizations by enabling data-driven operations with human-in-the-loop with the ease of spreadsheet.

    Among his many achievements and accolades, Shah was named a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Science in 2014 and was just recently announced as an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow for 2022. He’s also received a number of awards for his papers from INFORMS Applied Probability Society, INFORMS Management Science and Operations Management, NeurIPS, ACM Sigmetrics, and IEEE Infocom. His career prizes include the Erlang Prize from INFORMS Applied Probability Society and the Rising Star Award from ACM Sigmetrics. Shah has also received multiple Test of Time paper awards from ACM Sigmetrics and is recognized as a distinguished alumnus of his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

    “The Deshpande Center thanks Tim for his years of service as faculty director,” says the center’s executive director, Leon Sandler. “Tim’s commitment to innovation played an integral role in our success, and the center’s programs have thrived under his leadership. I look forward to working with Devavrat in the continuing effort to fulfill the mission of our center.”

    As part of his new post, Shah will work closely with Sandler, who has held the executive director position at the Deshpande Center since 2006. More

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    Professor Emery Brown has big plans for anesthesiology

    Emery N. Brown — the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and of Computational Neuroscience at MIT, an MIT professor of health sciences and technology, an investigator with The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, and the Warren M. Zapol Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) — clearly excels at many roles. Renowned internationally for his anesthesia and neuroscience research, he embodies a unique blend of anesthesiologist, statistician, neuroscientist, educator, and mentor to both students and colleagues. Notably, Brown is one of the most decorated clinician-scientists in the country; he is one of only 25 people — and the first African-American, statistician, and anesthesiologist — to be elected to all three National Academies (Science, Engineering, and Medicine).

    Now, he is handing off one of his many key roles and responsibilities. After almost 10 years, Brown is stepping down as co-director of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). He will turn his energies toward working to develop a new joint center between MIT and MGH that uses the study of anesthesia to design novel approaches to controlling brain states. While a goal of the new center will be to improve anesthesia and intensive care unit management, according to Brown, it will also study related problems such as treating depression, insomnia, and epilepsy, as well as enhancing coma recovery.

    Founded in 1970, HST is one of the oldest interdisciplinary educational programs focused on training the next generation of clinician-scientists and engineers, who learn to translate science, engineering, and medical research into clinical practice, with the aim of improving human health. The MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), where Brown is associate director, is HST’s home at MIT. Brown was the first HST co-director after the establishment of IMES in 2012; Wolfram Goessling is the Harvard University co-director of HST.

    “Emery has been an exemplary leader for HST during his tenure, and has helped it become a hub for the training of world-class scientists, engineers, and clinicians,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I am deeply grateful for his many years of service and wish him well as he moves on to new endeavors.”

    Elazer R. Edelman, director of IMES, calls Brown “a phenom who has been dedicated to our programs for years.”

    “With his thoughtful leadership and understated style, Emery made many contributions to the HST community,” Edelman continues. “On a personal note, this is bittersweet for me, as Emery has been a partner and mentor in my role as IMES director. And while I know that he will always be there for me, as he has been for all of us at IMES and HST, I will miss our late-night calls and midday conferences on matters of import for MIT, IMES, and HST.”

    Brown says “it was an honor and a privilege to co-direct HST with Wolfram.”

    “The students, staff, and faculty are simply amazing,” Brown continues. “Although, now more than 50 years old, HST remains at the vanguard for training PhD and MD students to work at the intersection between engineering, science, and medicine.”

    Goessling also thanks Brown for his leadership: “I truly valued Emery’s partnership and friendship, working together to deepen ties between the MIT and Harvard sides of HST. I am particularly grateful for working with Emery on our combined diversity efforts, leading to the HST Diversity Ambassadors initiative that made HST a better and stronger program.”

    According to Edelman, Brown was instrumental in the transition to new paradigms and relationships with HMS in the context of IMES. In 2014, he led the establishment of clear criteria for HST faculty membership, thereby strengthening the community of faculty experts who train students and provide research opportunities. More recently, he provided guidance through the turmoil of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, including the transition to online instruction and the return to the classroom. And Brown has always been a strong supporter of student diversity efforts, serving as an advocate and advisor to HST students.

    Brown holds BA, MA, and PhD degrees from Harvard University, and an MD from Harvard Medical School. He has been recognized with many awards, including the 2020 Swartz Prize in Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience, the 2018 Dickson Prize in Science, and an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Brown also served on President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative Working Group. Among his many accomplishments, he has been cited for developing neural signal processing algorithms to characterize how neural systems represent and transmit information, and for unlocking the neurophysiology of how anesthetics produce the states of general anesthesia.

    Edelman says the process is underway to name a successor to Brown as co-director of HST at MIT. More

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    MIT appoints members of new faculty committee to drive climate action plan

    In May, responding to the world’s accelerating climate crisis, MIT issued an ambitious new plan, “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade.” The plan outlines a broad array of new and expanded initiatives across campus to build on the Institute’s longstanding climate work.

    Now, to unite these varied climate efforts, maximize their impact, and identify new ways for MIT to contribute climate solutions, the Institute has appointed more than a dozen faculty members to a new committee established by the Fast Forward plan, named the Climate Nucleus.

    The committee includes leaders of a number of climate- and energy-focused departments, labs, and centers that have significant responsibilities under the plan. Its membership spans all five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Professors Noelle Selin and Anne White have agreed to co-chair the Climate Nucleus for a term of three years.

    “I am thrilled and grateful that Noelle and Anne have agreed to step up to this important task,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “Under their leadership, I’m confident that the Climate Nucleus will bring new ideas and new energy to making the strategy laid out in the climate action plan a reality.”

    The Climate Nucleus has broad responsibility for the management and implementation of the Fast Forward plan across its five areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts.

    Over the next few years, the nucleus will aim to advance MIT’s contribution to a two-track approach to decarbonizing the global economy, an approach described in the Fast Forward plan. First, humanity must go as far and as fast as it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using existing tools and methods. Second, societies need to invest in, invent, and deploy new tools — and promote new institutions and policies — to get the global economy to net-zero emissions by mid-century.

    The co-chairs of the nucleus bring significant climate and energy expertise, along with deep knowledge of the MIT community, to their task.

    Selin is a professor with joint appointments in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. She is also the director of the Technology and Policy Program. She began at MIT in 2007 as a postdoc with the Center for Global Change Science and the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Her research uses modeling to inform decision-making on air pollution, climate change, and hazardous substances.

    “Climate change affects everything we do at MIT. For the new climate action plan to be effective, the Climate Nucleus will need to engage the entire MIT community and beyond, including policymakers as well as people and communities most affected by climate change,” says Selin. “I look forward to helping to guide this effort.”

    White is the School of Engineering’s Distinguished Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. She joined the MIT faculty in 2009 and has also served as the associate director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Her research focuses on assessing and refining the mathematical models used in the design of fusion energy devices, such as tokamaks, which hold promise for delivering limitless zero-carbon energy.

    “The latest IPCC report underscores the fact that we have no time to lose in decarbonizing the global economy quickly. This is a problem that demands we use every tool in our toolbox — and develop new ones — and we’re committed to doing that,” says White, referring to an August 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN climate science body, that found that climate change has already affected every region on Earth and is intensifying. “We must train future technical and policy leaders, expand opportunities for students to work on climate problems, and weave sustainability into every one of MIT’s activities. I am honored to be a part of helping foster this Institute-wide collaboration.”

    A first order of business for the Climate Nucleus will be standing up three working groups to address specific aspects of climate action at MIT: climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s own carbon footprint. The working groups will be responsible for making progress on their particular areas of focus under the plan and will make recommendations to the nucleus on ways of increasing MIT’s effectiveness and impact. The working groups will also include student, staff, and alumni members, so that the entire MIT community has the opportunity to contribute to the plan’s implementation.  

    The nucleus, in turn, will report and make regular recommendations to the Climate Steering Committee, a senior-level team consisting of Zuber; Richard Lester, the associate provost for international activities; Glen Shor, the executive vice president and treasurer; and the deans of the five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. The new plan created the Climate Steering Committee to ensure that climate efforts will receive both the high-level attention and the resources needed to succeed.

    Together the new committees and working groups are meant to form a robust new infrastructure for uniting and coordinating MIT’s climate action efforts in order to maximize their impact. They replace the Climate Action Advisory Committee, which was created in 2016 following the release of MIT’s first climate action plan.

    In addition to Selin and White, the members of the Climate Nucleus are:

    Bob Armstrong, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and director of the MIT Energy Initiative;
    Dara Entekhabi, professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences;
    John Fernández, professor in the Department of Architecture and director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative;
    Stefan Helmreich, professor in the Department of Anthropology;
    Christopher Knittel, professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research;
    John Lienhard, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab;
    Julie Newman, director of the Office of Sustainability and lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning;
    Elsa Olivetti, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and co-director of the Climate and Sustainability Consortium;
    Christoph Reinhart, professor in the Department of Architecture and director of the Building Technology Program;
    John Sterman, professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the Sloan Sustainability Initiative;
    Rob van der Hilst, professor and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and
    Chris Zegras, professor and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. More

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    3 Questions: Peko Hosoi on the data-driven reasoning behind MIT’s Covid-19 policies for the fall

    As students, faculty, and staff prepare for a full return to the MIT campus in the weeks ahead, procedures for entering buildings, navigating classrooms and labs, and interacting with friends and colleagues will likely take some getting used to.

    The Institute recently reinforced its policies for indoor masking and has also continued to require regular testing for people who live, work, or study on campus — procedures that apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Vaccination is required for all students, faculty, and staff on campus unless a medical or religious exemption is granted.

    These and other policies adopted by MIT to control the spread of Covid-19 have been informed by modeling efforts from a volunteer group of MIT faculty, students, and postdocs. The collaboration, dubbed Isolat, was co-founded by Anette “Peko” Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and associate dean in the School of Engineering.

    The group, which is organized through MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has run numerous models to show how measures such as mask wearing, testing, ventilation, and quarantining could affect Covid-19’s spread. These models have helped to shape MIT’s Covid-19 policies throughout the pandemic, including its procedures for returning to campus this fall.

    Hosoi spoke with MIT News about the data-backed reasoning behind some of these procedures, including indoor masking and regular testing, and how a “generous community” will help MIT safely weather the virus and its variants.

    Q: Take us through how you have been modeling Covid-19 and its variants, in regard to helping MIT shape its Covid policies. What’s the approach you’ve taken, and why?

    A: The approach we’re taking uses a simple counting exercise developed in IDSS to estimate the balance of testing, masking, and vaccination that is required to keep the virus in check. The underlying objective is to find infected people faster, on average, than they can infect others, which is captured in a simple algebraic expression. Our objective can be accomplished either by speeding up the rate of finding infected people (i.e. increasing testing frequency) or slowing down the rate of infection (i.e. increasing masking and vaccination) or by a combination of both. To give you a sense of the numbers, balances for different levels of testing are shown in the chart below for a vaccine efficacy of 67 percent and a contagious period of 18 days (which are the CDC’s latest parameters for the Delta variant).

    The vertical axis shows the now-famous reproduction number R0, i.e. the average number of people that one infected person will infect throughout the course of their illness. These R0 are averages for the population, and in specific circumstances the spreading could be more than that.

    Each blue line represents a different testing frequency: Below the line, the virus is controlled; above the line, it spreads. For example, the dotted blue line shows the boundary if we rely solely on vaccination with no testing. In that case, even if everyone is vaccinated, we can only control up to an R0 of about 3.  Unfortunately, the CDC places R0 of the Delta variant somewhere between 5 and 9, so vaccination alone is insufficient to control the spread. (As an aside, this also means that given the efficacy estimates for the current vaccines, herd immunity is not possible.)

    Next consider the dashed blue line, which represents the stability boundary if we test everyone once per week. If our vaccination rate is greater than about 90 percent, testing one time per week can control even the CDC’s most pessimistic estimate for the Delta variant’s R0.

    Q: In returning to campus over the next few weeks, indoor masking and regular testing are required of every MIT community member, even those who are vaccinated. What in your modeling has shown that each of these policies is necessary?

    A: Given that the chart above shows that vaccination and weekly testing are sufficient to control the virus, one should certainly ask “Why have we reinstated indoor masking?” The answer is related to the fact that, as a university, our population turns over once a year; every September we bring in a few thousand new people. Those people are coming from all over the world, and some of them may not have had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet. The good news is that MIT Medical has vaccines and will be administering them to any unvaccinated students as soon as they arrive; the bad news is that, as we all know, it takes three to five weeks for resistance to build up, depending on the vaccine. This means that we should think of August and September as a transition period during which the vaccination rates may fluctuate as new people arrive. 

    The other revelation that has informed our policies for September is the recent report from the CDC that infected vaccinated people carry roughly the same viral load as unvaccinated infected people. This suggests that vaccinated people — although they are highly unlikely to get seriously ill — are a consequential part of the transmission chain and can pass the virus along to others. So, in order to avoid giving the virus to people who are not yet fully vaccinated during the transition period, we all need to exercise a little extra care to give the newly vaccinated time for their immune systems to ramp up. 

    Q: As the fall progresses, what signs are you looking for that might shift decisions on masking and testing on campus?

    A: Eventually we will have to shift responsibility toward individuals rather than institutions, and allow people to make decisions about masks and testing based on their own risk tolerance. The success of the vaccines in suppressing severe illness will enable us to shift to a position in which our objective is not necessarily to control the spread of the virus, but rather to reduce the risk of serious outcomes to an acceptable level. There are many people who believe we need to make this adjustment and wean ourselves off pandemic living. They are right; we cannot continue like this forever. However, we have not played all our cards yet, and, in my opinion, we need to carefully consider what’s left in our hand before we abdicate institutional responsibility.

    The final ace we have to play is vaccinating kids. It is important to remember that we have many people in our community with kids who are too young to be vaccinated and, understandably, those parents do not want to bring Covid home to their children. Furthermore, our campus is not just a workplace; it is also home to thousands of people, some of whom have children living in our residences or attending an MIT childcare center. Given that context, and the high probability that a vaccine will be approved for children in the near future, it is my belief that our community has the empathy and fortitude to try to keep the virus in check until parents have the option to protect their children with vaccines. 

    Bearing in mind that children constitute an unprotected portion of our population, let me return to the original question and speculate on the fate of masks and testing in the fall. Regarding testing, the analysis suggests that we cannot give that up entirely if we would like to control the spread of the virus. Second, control of the virus is not the only benefit we get from testing. It also gives us situational awareness, serves as an early warning beacon, and provides information that individual members of the community can use as they make decisions about their own risk budget. Personally, I’ve been testing for a year now and I find it easy and reassuring. Honestly, it’s nice to know that I’m Covid-free before I see friends (outside!) or go home to my family.

    Regarding masks, there is always uncertainty around whether a new variant will arise or whether vaccine efficacy will fade, but, given the current parameters and our analysis, my hope is that we will be in a position to provide some relief on the mask mandate once the incoming members of our population have been fully vaccinated. I also suspect that whenever the mask mandate is lifted, masks are not likely to go away. There are certainly situations in which I will continue to wear a mask regardless of the mandate, and many in our community will continue to feel safer wearing masks even when they are not required.

    I believe that we are a generous community and that we will be willing to take precautions to help keep each other healthy. The students who were on campus last year did an outstanding job, and they have given me a tremendous amount of faith that we can be considerate and good to one another even in extremely trying times.

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